Over at The Atlantic, I’ve been interviewing Jack Hitt, one of my favorite journalists. If you’ve never heard the This American Life episode The Super, do yourself the favor of consuming it immediately. It’s just damn good storytelling. The same can be said for Jack’s magazine stories. One example is Toxic Dreams, one of the most impressive magazine stories I’ve ever read. The subject is an environmental lawsuit filed by folks exposed to toxic waste that overflowed from a nearby dumping ground. It’s one of those stories where most writers would get hopelessly lost in the almost impenetrable details. Somehow Jack Hitt turns it into a narrative masterpiece.
As a writer who aspires to long form non-fiction, I find storytelling the most difficult aspect of the craft. How does one know how best to organize a piece? I’ve studied Ian Frazier, Lawrence Weschler, John McPhee and sundry others, and picked up some tricks along the way. It is nevertheless immensely comforting to read Jack’s advice on how to tell a great story in print:
I have spent a long time looking for short cuts to the answer to this very question. But I haven’t found any. So, begin by over-reporting and over-researching everything. If the story involves talking to people, talk to them as long as they will stand to have you around and then talk to them some more. Keep reading. Outline a structure to the piece. Set that aside for now. Realize you don’t know enough. Go over all your interviews and research notes again, only this time, make a laundry list of all the great details, large and small, along with the best quotes. Look at that list a lot. Begin the process of re-reading all of your research. Bail out of re-reading all of your research by convincing yourself that what you really need is a long walk to think about “structure.” Walk toward your shoes and look at them. Blow off the walk altogether. Descend into a shame spiral. Now, catch up on your HBO tivo’d backlog. After several hours, take another ride on the shame spiral. Lumber over to the desk and go over the interviews again. Make notes of your notes in tiny scrawl so that they can fit on a single sheet of paper. Look at the details. Write down the big ideas that form the superstructure of the piece. Realize you are a pompous git for thinking that ideas have anything to do with it and go back to that list of details. Set it aside. Read some blogs.
The next day, re-read the single sheet of paper with the notes of your notes and wonder, what does this shit even mean? Then outline a structure. Indulge in a nice long afternoon of intense self-loathing. Start to write according to that outline. Throw that draft away. Write a new outline. Go over your notes. Re-interview a few people. Realize, as if you hadn’t realized this a thousand times before (most recently, a few minutes before) that your own big ideas about this story are pathetic, but this list of details and the more decent quotations from the interviews—there’s some pretty good stuff in there. Fiddle with writing a few more paragraphs. Microwave your cold cup of coffee for the third time. Go over your notes again. Yell irrationally at your spouse/child/dog/a bare wall. Now, kick the wall. Limp. Review all the transcribed interviews one more time from beginning to end. Paste a large sheet of paper to a wall and, standing up with a fresh cup of coffee in your hand, outline the piece in really big letters. Realize that you’ve misunderstood the point of the entire story all this time. Scream the word, “fuck” really loud in an empty room. Do this about 40 times. Wipe off the flopsweat. Look at the notes on the single sheet of paper and realize just how brilliant they are, or moronic. Espy the grime on your bike chain—it could use a good cleaning with some WD-40. Start writing the lead paragraph again. Set that aside. Find that single cartoon frame from “Peanuts” that you keep in a box somewhere, the one in which Snoopy is reading a publisher’s rejection letter for his novel that goes, “Has it ever occurred to you that you may be the worst writer in the history of the world?” Read it and laugh. Later that day, read it again and not laugh. Feel really, really sad. Go over your notes one more time. Look at earlier drafts and passages and realize that maybe this stuff here is the lead, actually, and then if you follow that outline from seven outlines ago, it just might work. Re-read the last couplet of the first strophe of Philip Sidney’s Astrophel and Stella. Look at those riffs in the earlier draft again and realize some are not that bad. Convince yourself that your bike chain really does need another good cleaning and what’s that gunk on the inside of the rear fender? Read the latest draft-like substance and think that, with a little work, maybe this won’t be too embarrassing. Feel mildly excited that there could actually be something here worth reading eventually. Look at the list of details again. Re-read the edited draft and start to feel better. Or, if not, set it aside and then repeat all of the above instructions, only this time, after each step, masturbate.